By MARC HINTON - Rugbyheaven
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Richie McCaw is back. With those four reassuring words the All Blacks head into Saturday night's Bledisloe accompanied by a strange sort of assurance that belies their buildup form.
You see the All Blacks with and without their talismanic and classy captain are clearly two different beasts. Last year illustrated that graphically: McCaw went down with an ankle injury for the opening three Tri-Nations fixtures and the All Blacks lost the last two on the trot; the skipper returned for this equivalent fixture at Eden Park (deja vu, or what?), and suddenly all was right again. The New Zealanders never lost another match the rest of the year.
McCaw is not comfortable with such theories, and naturally won't hear of any assertions that an individual carries so weighty an influence.
But the fact of the matter is when McCaw is there the All Blacks seldom lose. When he's not it's a heck of a more regular occurrence.
Strictly counting only matches McCaw featured in, the All Blacks lost zero tests in 2004, one in 2005, one in 2006, two in 2007 and none last year. As trends go, that's a fairly emphatic one.
It's why pretty much everyone including the Wallabies is also disregarding the shambolic performances of the Iveco Series. With McCaw, along with Rodney So'oialo and Sitiveni Sivivatu, now back on board, and others like Andrew Hore, Neemia Tialata and Conrad Smith having shaken off early injuries, this is a vastly different All Blacks side.
Thank goodness, given the stuttering nature of their early performances.
Further ratcheting up the pressure on old Captain Fantastic is the fact he has no recognisable backup in the squad.
In other words, buckle up Richie, you're in this test for the long haul. Eighty exhausting minutes.
The thing is that just excites McCaw. He may not have played for six weeks or so, but he's a past master at this and he's fully confident of hitting the ground running on Saturday night.
"I'm excited about that," he says. "I'm pretty confident I'll be able to [go the 80]. I've done three to four weeks of training, have had a couple of hitouts, and that's probably more than I've had in the past.
"From that point of view I know where I'm at. Though it's hard, with the adrenalin that comes with a test match you seem to be able to keep going."
It helps, too, for both McCaw and the All Blacks that they went into this equivalent match last year with an eerily similar backdrop (poor form, heaps of pressure and with McCaw back off the injured list) and played so well.
They know it doesn't guarantee anything now, but there's also a comforting feel that the combination of steeled mindsets and McCaw's reintroductions tends to be a good 'un.
"From the team's point of view it is a bit different, because we've got a few different fellas there. But it just shows you a week's a long time in rugby," said the 70-test flanker.
"If you're not quite right you come second. Three weeks ago we didn't have our best day out on the field, but you look at things you need to change and I don't think they're too major and you can turn that round."
McCaw admits there's an "unknown" aspect to the All Blacks. But again nothing's new there. "It's always the case coming into the Tri-Nations, what's gone on before sort of means nothing really. Over the time I've played there's very little between the three teams and I'm sure this year will be the same.
Ad Feedback "It's who can be consistent with their performance and take their opportunities."
McCaw also offered a welcome vote of confidence in under-the-gun five-eighth Stephen Donald.
The public may be wavering in their support of the Chiefs playmaker, but the All Blacks skipper has no doubt they have the right man for the job there.
"It's great he's back. He's played a lot of rugby at 10, and I thought he did reasonably well the first couple of weeks and he's going to be even better now."
McCaw was equally rapt to have the No 8 Graham Henry refers to as "the old warrior" back. So'oialo, opined the skip, is "jumping out of his skin".
Added McCaw: "Having a few weeks off has been the best thing for him. He'd be the first to admit his body played up a bit towards the end the Super 14, but he's had a chance to freshen up and get excited, and he's added a fair bit this week."
The Kiwi captain can't explain the All Blacks' amazing record at Eden Park (they haven't lost to anyone there since 1994, and to the Wallabies since 1986), other than to say "it's a cool place to play".
He was also not buying into the Robbie Deans factor, other than to note he sees "some traits that are familiar" about these Wallabies. It still remains a contest between the players, regardless of who's sitting up in the coaches' box.
In terms of his old foe George Smith, who will play his 100th test on Saturday night, McCaw was a little more forthcoming.
He recalled their first meeting opposite each other in an under-19 international. "I got a wee lesson that night about who George Smith was." Since then there's been many a fine battle, at Super 14 and test level.
"He doesn't seem to have a bad game," adds McCaw. "He's pretty smart too. When he chooses to do something he usually does it pretty well and has an impact on the game."
McCaw, though, is adamant that it's far from all about him this week.
"All the fellas that have been around a while - and there's a couple of us coming back in - have got to make sure we get things right. That's what I'm worrying about getting my own ship in order then I can help the team out after that.
"It's not rocket science. It's about preparing well, and then getting my own game right."